Like the thistle of Scotland or the shamrock of Ireland, the vine was a symbol of the People of God, which occurs a number of times in the Old Testament (eg Ps.80, Is.5, Jer.2), though the prophets point out that the vine had become corrupt, producing bad fruit. In claiming to be the true vine, therefore, Jesus is claiming to be all that Israel was meant to be – all God’s purposes and promises are fulfilled in him. To be one of God’s people and to know all the blessings associated with that, means being united to Christ. This passage brings us back to the heart of the Christian life: not admiring Christ, or doing things for Christ, but enjoying a real relationship with Christ. And the passage has much to teach us about this relationship.
The Father (the gardener) has a clear agenda – fruit. His concern is to make us as fruitful as possible. It is striking that though the vine and the branches and gardener are all identified, the fruit never is quite, but the passage does help us. It is what shows us to be Jesus’ disciples (v.8) as we live lives of obedience (v.10), in particular obeying the command to love his people (v.12). The fruit is the outworking of our relationship with Christ – every way the life of the vine is reproduced in us, and the purpose of the vine is realised in us. As the purpose of a vine branch is to bear fruit, so the over-arching purpose of my life is to bear fruit to the Father’s glory, which may well necessitate some painful pruning, but this fruit has lasting worth (v.16) unlike so many of the other things we are tempted to live for instead.
The purpose is made clear, and so too the means. The only way for a branch to be fruitful is to remain in the vine (v.4). And as we remain in Christ then we will inevitably bear “much fruit” (v.5). (Fruitless branches show they are not truly in the vine). Remaining in Christ, in part, speaks of dependence – as a branch depends on the vine for its life and sustenance, so remaining in Christ speaks of a continuing dependence on Christ that acknowledges that “apart from me you can do nothing” (v.5). Two particular expressions of this attitude of dependence are mentioned: first, attention to his word (v.7). For his words to remain in us, it is not simply that we listen to a sermon once a week, or skim a few verses in our bibles in the morning, but that his Word is taken deeply to heart such that it shapes our lives. Secondly, dependence on Christ shows itself in prayer: prayer which we can expect to be powerfully effective, but the context helps control how we understand this promise. This prayer is shaped by the Word of Christ and, verse 8 suggests, by a concern for fruitfulness. Such prayer we can offer in confident expectation that “it will be given you”.
The vine metaphor is now dropped but the number of similarities with the previous verses suggest Jesus is unpacking further what he said there. Our union with Christ is now likened to Christ’s relationship to the Father. Verse 9a is well worth pausing at and pondering – how has the Father loved Christ? ….So has Christ loved us! Amazing! To remain in his love is to live in conscious enjoyment of it –and to experience and know this love is to know complete joy (v.11). How we remain in it (and know this joy) is by obeying him. And the particular command set before us is the command to love each other as he has loved us. Mosaic law said “love others as you love yourself”, but now the measure has changed: Jesus says “love others as I have loved you”.
Obedience doesn’t make us “friends” but demonstrates that we are his friends. But since obedience would also be a mark of a servant, what distinguishes us as friends as opposed to just servants? Understanding. Christ has taken us into his confidence, our eyes have been opened to see all that is revealed in Christ. We are enormously privileged (a privilege for which we take no credit – v.16a), and with that privilege comes a responsibility: to bear fruit. This might be missionary language – “go” – suggesting that the fruit in mind is evangelistic fruit as people come to know Christ through our witness. We’ve been given understanding of God’s great purposes for the world and how they are realised in Christ, and what we know we are to make known! The promise for prayer in verse 16 might therefore be particularly understood in that context: prayer in Jesus’ name, in line with his character and purposes, should mean that we pray for (evangelistic) fruitfulness, and we can pray confidently for that because we know he chose us and appointed us for that very purpose.